4 Tips for Counseling a Struggling Remote Employee

Many tech managers have let performance issues slide in recent weeks and months. After all, many technologists have needed time to adjust to working remotely, as well as deal with their companies’ changing goals and strategies. 

The good news is that 76 percent of remote workers say they are equally or more productive working from home, according to a survey from Slack.  However, that also means that 24 percent are falling short.

Now that the working from home is here to stay for the foreseeable future, it’s perhaps time to address declining performance or other issues. Since this is new territory for experienced and aspiring managers alike, here are some tips for conducting an effective counseling session with an employee when both of you are remote.

Extend Your Diagnostic Lens

Addressing poor performance isn’t clear-cut when managers can’t control the work environment, engage in casual conversations, or observe an employee’s day-to-day performance. “There are all kinds of variables you have to consider now,” noted Ron Carucci, managing partner of Navalent.

For instance, you need to truly understand everything that could negatively impact a team member’s ability to perform and succeed in these challenging times, stated Liz Kislik, management consultant and executive coach. Ask yourself: 

  • Does this employee really understand what I’m looking for? 
  • Is their performance impacted by things outside of their control? 
  • Have I offered feedback, coaching and support? 

You should have had two to three conversations with the employee before initiating a serious conversation about performance. “Unless you have made an effort to understand what the employee is dealing with, it may appear like you are making demands rather than trying to help,” Kislik warned.

Facilitate Effective Discussions

While it might seem like a video call is the best way to monitor body language, emotions and contextual cues when you can’t counsel face-to-face, Aaron Vick cautions against taking a one-size-fits-all approach to communications. 

“I try to understand who they are as a person and address each employee in a way that is comfortable for them,” said Vick, who’s the CEO of legal technology firm CICAYDA. For example, he finds that speaking by phone is less stressful for camera-shy employees and generally results in a more productive discussion. A phone call might also be better for employees who can’t hold a frank and private video conversation about their job performance at home.

No matter which communication method you choose, be sure to schedule a specific time and set a positive tone going into the meeting. Explain that you want to have a conversation about performance, address concerns and initiate improvement. 

Ask, Don’t Tell

Don’t rattle off a litany of issues or hand the employee a mandate or prescription. The goal of the session is to help the employee diagnose their performance issues and come up with a roadmap for improvement.

Start by asking an open-ended question such as: How do you think things are going? Then listen very carefully to how the employee describes the problem with their performance, Carucci said.

Are they able to identify the root cause of their performance problems? Can they ask for the help they need, or name the things that are getting in the way of delivering the quantity and quality of code required? If the employee can’t articulate how they plan to improve or what it will take to meet expectations, they aren’t likely to improve.

Once the problem has been identified, make it a strategy session, Vick suggested.

Thanks to employee feedback, Vick is vetting the idea of holding a weekly socially-distant standup outside a local Starbucks, which could enhance team collaboration. In that spirit, perhaps adjusting the employee’s work schedule, providing wireless earbuds, or ordering a (delivered) lunch might help them deal with household chaos during the “new normal.” 

Be willing to accept incremental progress, especially if the employee was meeting expectations before the lockdown. While managers need to set clear and reasonable expectations and play a critical supporting role, the employee is ultimately accountable for their performance and meeting goals.

Remote Follow-Up

Ask the employee to summarize the conversation as well as the specific performance benchmarks and actions they committed to. This strategy puts the emphasis on improvement and helps the employee feel empowered to succeed, rather than being written up.

Follow-up every week without fail until you are sure that improvement has been achieved and sustained. When it comes to managing underperforming remote employees, there is no such thing as “no news is good news.”